This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two high-profile cases on racial preferences in college admissions, involving the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. There are two Supreme Court precedents on affirmative action that could be overturned if the conservative-majority court determines that race considerations cannot constitutionally play a role in university admissions.
If the court overturns protections for affirmative action, that would likely be a decision that Americans would support. When asked specifically whether colleges and universities should consider an applicant's race along with other factors in order to further student body diversity in higher education — the question at the heart of the Supreme Court cases — most Americans (54%) in recent YouGov polls say no.
Other, more specific polling on Supreme Court precedents also indicates that Americans would like to see the existing affirmative action rulings overturned.
How Americans perceive the University of California v. Bakke
In 1978, the Supreme Court considered the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and ruled that colleges and universities are allowed to use an applicant's race as one of several criteria in admitting them to the institution — so long as a rigid quota system for minority applicants was not involved in the method for admission.
That case centered around Allan Bakke, a white man who applied to the University of California for medical school. Bakke was rejected from the university, even though his college GPA and test scores exceeded the college GPA and test scores of several non-white applicants who were among the 100 students admitted to the school. The University of California said that it had reserved 16 spots for qualified non-white applicants who are part of populations that historically have been excluded from the medical profession.
A majority of Americans (56%) say that it was "completely wrong" or "more wrong than right" for Bakke to be rejected from the medical school, according to a YouGov poll conducted October 17–20 that described the case. One-quarter (26%) say it was "completely right" or "more right than wrong" and 17% are unsure. Four in five Republicans say it was completely wrong or more wrong than right of the school to turn Bakke away, as do 54% of Independents and 39% of Democrats.
The Supreme Court agreed — to an extent, barring racial quotas while allowing race to be considered as one of several factors in admissions. By 51% to 23%, Americans say they would like to see Bakke overturned. Republicans (69%) are more likely than Independents (50%) and Democrats (37%) to want the decision overturned.
Americans are generally split on whether the Supreme Court will overturn its ruling in University of California v. Bakke. About one-quarter (27%) say it is very likely or will definitely happen, and 21% say it's very unlikely or definitely will not happen. About half (52%) say that there is a 50% chance that the 1978 decision will be overturned.
How Americans perceive the University of Grutter v. Bollinger
Affirmative action was considered by the Supreme Court again in 2003 in its ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which reaffirmed that colleges and universities can narrowly use race in admissions decisions in order to achieve a diverse student body.
The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Barbara Grutter, a white woman who applied to the selective University of Michigan Law School. Grutter's GPA and her score on the law-school admissions test were considered typical for applicants to Michigan, but it rejected her. She said her grades and scores were better than some admitted non-white applicants, and argued that the law school had "no compelling interest to justify their use of race in the admissions process." The University of Michigan said that it uses race as one factor, among others, in making admissions decisions.
Similar to Americans' views on the Bakke case, a majority (54%) say that it was "completely wrong" or "more wrong than right" for Grutter to be rejected when given a description of the case. One-quarter (26%) say it was "completely right" or "more right than wrong" and 20% are unsure. Three-quarters of Republicans say it was completely wrong or more wrong than right. About half of Independents (52%) agree, and Democrats are evenly split (41% to 41%).
Like with Bakke, Americans are split on whether the Supreme Court will overturn its ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger. About one-quarter (24%) say it is very likely or will definitely happen, and 23% say it's very unlikely or definitely will not happen. About half (53%) say that there is a 50% chance that the 2003 decision will be overturned.
While not as many Americans want to see Grutter v. Bollinger overturned as side with Grutter in the case, support for overturning the ruling is more popular than opposition, by 44% to 27%. More than three in five Republicans (62%) want it overturned, compared to 40% of Independents and 33% of Democrats.
Views on affirmative action in 2022
In its 2003 Grutter decision, the Supreme Court wrote from the perspective of a court that was weighing the importance of affirmative action 25 years after the 1978 Bakke decision. Near the end of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion, she wrote that "the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased. We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."
While more than one-third of Americans (38%) say that it has been necessary in the past for colleges and universities to consider a candidate's race in order to further student body diversity in higher education, just 26% say that is still necessary today. A majority (54%) of Americans say it is not needed today.
Among the 26% of Americans who say racial considerations are currently needed in order to further student body diversity, just 42% — about 11% of Americans overall — believe they will still be needed in 2028, 25 years after the Grutter v. Bollinger decision. About as many of this group are unsure what will be needed in 2028.
Should colleges and universities consider any types of diversity in admissions decisions? For nearly all of the 10 diversity considerations polled, majorities of Americans responded that they should not be considered by colleges and universities when admitting students. Only about one-third of Americans want economic (34%), ability (32%), or racial (31%) diversity to be considered. Racial diversity is the type most likely to be backed by Democrats (53%), followed by economic diversity (51%) and ability diversity (48%). Majorities of Republicans reject each of the options presented, with the closest margin for ability diversity (23% say yes, 59% say no).
Three-quarters (75%) of Democrats say yes to at least one of the 10 types of diversity polled, compared to 40% of Republicans and 56% of Americans overall. Meanwhile, only 16% of Democrats say yes to all of them, compared to 2% of Republicans and 8% of Americans overall.
Many Americans think that diversity measures have gone too far on college campuses: 29% say universities have done too much to ensure diversity, compared to 22% who say they have done too little. By a margin of 48% to 36%, Americans say that everyone in the United States has an equal opportunity for education. White Americans (52%) are more likely than Hispanic Americans (46%) and Black Americans (35%) to say everyone is already given an equal chance for education.
— Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik contributed to this article
Polling by the Economist/YouGov was conducted on October 22 - 25, 2022 among 1,500 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this Economist/YouGov poll. The poll on October 17 - 20, 2022 was conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
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